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Shining the CSI flashlight on your business practices

The three letters CSI are probably well known to you. During this fall, CBS will again offer us three versions of the popular TV show. And if you Google the magical three letters, you'll find that many organizations have borrowed them for their own uses.

School systems have had a series of summer camps centered on the CSI theme. Libraries have used the CSI theme for summer exploration of sciences for middle/high schoolers. A university has had its science faculty offering forensics classes as a continuing education option. So what would we find if the CSI "flashlights" were to shine on managers in the marine industry? What evidence would we find of good management and leadership?

Shining the CSI flashlight on the executive suite: What will be the vision of senior managers as they consider the future, especially the aftershocks of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Junior managers, as well as employees, like to know (need to know) what direction their company is headed. (In the July issue, I noted the expectation that more than a few managers and employees will be looking for the most stable employment they can find as the economy continues to improve.) So is there evidence of such vision and associated strategic planning visible? Too often, the executive team is reluctant to share its vision, for fear of competitive intelligence gathering. What have you heard from the executive team about any new directions for the next five years? What changes might be inferred? Yes, there will be changes and the mere admission that changes may occur creates some greater trust in the executive leadership.

Security is uppermost in the minds of a majority of managers and employees today. They crave an honest statement of the company's direction. This can be done via the larger firms' periodic newsletters or even through a "personal" letter to each employee and family. Research has always shown that people who have minimal anxiety about their job security are more motivated on the job. Job anxiety eats away at a person's ability to focus. Most business executives fail to understand the need to share some sense of direction with operating-level employees. The spouse of the employee is critical in completing the communication link with the employee.

Walking around is a time tested follow-up to any formal communication about company direction. The stories on the TV show "Undercover Boss" (the topic here in July) have all illustrated this. A new selection of companies is being featured on the show this fall; will a marine industry organization be highlighted? Stay tuned.

Shining the CSI flashlight on the human resource function: What communication has been forthcoming about future health insurance changes? While this is an evolving process in our economy, there is so much conflicting information from various sources. Employees hear things that might untrue. Fox News and CNN and the Washington Post might view the same data in a different manner. HR managers should have the most up-to-date information available about what is in store for their organization. How can you best communicate your information to your work force?

I have found that many people want to ask questions, based on the information they may have received elsewhere and you may have a good chance to minimize the fears of some people. Thus, one part of the communications process should be small group discussions and a question-and-answer session about what is on the horizon. Something in writing is helpful to start the ball rolling and to provide something to talk about with the family.

What else is happening in the HR field? Do you offer a traditional pension program or a 401(k) plan? What in the news can create questions for employees and managers? What has happened to the plan offered by the company during the last few years as the market has declined and now regained some/much of its lost value. An open discussion with your employee investors is encouraged. The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 2) reported that "some retirement plans are replacing mutual funds with lower-cost collective trusts." The differences may be significant for the investor and any changes such as this should be clearly presented. To make changes without clear and open discussions can ruin a positive HR relationship.

In today's world, company executives must be aware that the HR department (properly staffed) is likely to be the most trusted unit in the business. It should be fully aware of the direction of the firm and be able to share ideas with all members of the organization.

Shining the CSI flashlight on the company management team: What would we find to be their best leadership traits?

Leaders are decision makers par excellence. Leaders never look back when confronted with a choice. They know that hesitancy is a dangerous "infection" that can eventually ruin the organization. A South Carolina marine operator told me that "Sails must be hoisted while the wind blows." However, the leaders make objective decisions. You will not see decisions being made primarily on popular opinion. Do you see this in your leader as you look at the CSI flashlight's circle of light. We certainly see this behavior at all levels of politics today.

Another common characteristic we will find in that good leader/manager is that the people surrounding the manager are not all "yes" people. They are folks who genuinely agree to disagree freely and make sure the senior manager has the opinion of a variety of ideas. Do your colleagues feel comfortable in sharing opposing views with you? Does your boss accept conflicting views from you?

If you answered yes to the last question above, it is likely your boss is a good delegator. However, delegation is one of the least developed skills of the typical manager. Too many managers fear that, by delegation, they may suffer from missteps or poor actions of the subordinate manager. This likely stems from a basic insecurity that many of us "humanoids" possess. For some reason, in our North American business culture, managers, as well as employees, fear the wrath of the "boss" for a decision that may not work well. Even your CEO may have reservations about just how the board of directors (the chairman, especially), may react to decisions made at the senior or even operating level. Look at the alleged reaction of some BP board members about the strategy of the BP senior management a few months ago.

American business is based on the individual, no matter how much we may promote team efforts. Managers seem to want to be involved and know that the results will be theirs to claim. To "deputize" a subordinate to tackle a sensitive or otherwise important problem often sends a chill up the spine of many managers. Yet it is impossible to groom (prepare) a manager to tackle a challenge unless they are allowed to develop and that usually means making a mistake.

Is it O.K. in your workplace to make a mistake? What would your boss do when he/she learned that you had made an error in your own area of managing? Hopefully, the response would be: What can we learn from this so we improve our process for the future? We must be patient with our junior managers; development takes time. Patience is one attribute that is absent in so many workplaces today in the U.S.; or stated more precisely, Americans have little patience.

With time (space) running out here, the CSI flashlight also would clearly identify a performance improvement plan (performance appraisal plan) that employees understand and that leads to improved productivity as well as greater personal satisfaction for employees. Is this true at your workplace?

What is the most important thing that the CSI flashlight did not identify here that is true for your company and workplace? Please send your idea to me so I can add it to the CSI case file that I will report on next fall.

While you are doing this, help me with a motivation issue for an upcoming column. What do you believe is your best motivation tool in today's economy. I hope to hear from you. E-mail is the easiest way for me to receive ideas. The deadline for both ideas is Oct. 1. Don't let grass grow under you.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.



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